LONDON • It is Champions League week, and Real Madrid are pursuing glory again.
It is the competition that they love most, that drives them on, seeking to repeat the feats of Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Raul and Zinedine Zidane, now Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale.
"The Champions League means everything to the club. It's the main priority every year," says Welsh forward Bale, who is in the midst of his best form since joining the Spanish football giants and desperate to end Manchester City's Champions League dream in the first leg of their semi-final today.
He scored during Real's 4-1 victory over Atletico Madrid in the 2014 final which gave them a 10th success in the tournament.
"Every Champions League match it was 'La Decima, La Decima,' now it's 'La Undecima, La Undecima.' I thought as soon as 'La Decima' was done, they'd be happy," he says. "But no. It's just in the club's nature, they want to win the European Cup every year. It's instilled in you and you go for it every year."
The 26-year-old, without the injured club talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, led Real back from a 2-0 deficit with a double in a hard-fought 3-2 win at Rayo Vallecano on Saturday to keep his side just a point adrift of La Liga leaders Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
He was lauded as "phenomenal" by manager Zinedine Zidane with his performances in recent months living up to the world record €100.8 million (S$153 million) that Real paid Tottenham Hotspur for his services three years ago.
However, he is keen to make an impact in his first match on English soil since swapping White Hart Lane for the Santiago Bernabeu.
"I loved playing in the Premier League and I still watch it. It will be great to go back but the most important thing is that we come back with the win," he said. "We know they (City) are a very tough team to beat but we will be going there to win the game and get into the final."
Bale returns to England a player at the height of his powers. He trains assiduously, accentuating his abilities, always developing, never compromising. "I've been working on heading, finishing every day, keep working hard," he says.
Zidane has given him a role roving in from the right and he has prospered, delivering strong displays and a flow of goals.
And he insists that he has struck an excellent relationship with Ronaldo, despite reports to the contrary.
"We've found a good balance," says Bale. "We're doing well, scoring a lot of goals, and hopefully we can peak now towards the end of the season and get some trophies."
But is there a pecking order for who takes free kicks? "Free kicks left side him, free kicks right side me. Every game," says Bale. "So we know exactly what's what."
It makes sense, utilising the club's most potent weapons, Bale's left foot and Ronaldo's right.
Real's history in the competition and star power make them the bookies' favourites to reach a 14th European Cup final.
However, with City owner Sheikh Mansour Zayed Al Nahyan having spent an estimated £800 million (S$1.56 billion) on transfer fees in the past decade, Bale refused to accept City are underdogs.
He said: "City have some great players, Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne is in good form. They wouldn't be in the Champions League semi-finals without good players. We know the threat they could pose but we're ready for it. They know we have good players. Hopefully we can cause them more problems than they cause us."
Last season it was said that Real were the favourites when they drew Juventus in the semi-final and it was the Italian side who made it to Berlin.
"Things like that can happen in football," Bale said. "When you are up against another big side in a big game like that I don't think there is a favourite and you know that you are going to have to work really hard and play well to win.
"We know (City) won on Saturday as well but we are going into the game feeling confident and excited by it."
THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
MAN CITY V REAL MADRID
Singtel TV Ch112 and StarHub Ch212, tomorrow, 2.45am